Ellie is on the story, diving headfirst into a treacherous demimonde of Hollywood wannabes, beautiful young men, desperately ambitious ingénues, panderers, and pornography hobbyists. Then there are some real movie stars with reputations to protect. To find the killer, Ellie must separate the lies from the truth, unearthing secrets no one wants revealed along the way. But before she can solve the producer’s murder, she must locate Tony Eberle.
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Cast the First Stone
An Ellie Stone Mystery
By james w. ziskin
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2017 James W. Ziskin
All rights reserved.
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 1962
Sitting at the head of runway 31R at Idlewild, the jet hummed patiently, its four turbines spinning, almost whining. The captain's voice crackled over the public-address system to inform us that we were next in line for takeoff. I'd noticed him earlier leaning against the doorframe of the cockpit, greeting passengers as we boarded the plane. He'd given me a thorough once-over — a hungry leer I know all too well — and I averted my gaze like the good girl that I'm not.
"Welcome aboard, miss" he'd said, compelling me to look him in the eye. He winked and flashed me a bright smile. "I hope to give you a comfortable ride."
I surely blushed.
Now, just moments after the handsome pilot had assured us of our imminent departure, the engines roared to life, and the aircraft lurched forward from its standstill. Juddering at first as it began to move, the plane rumbled down the runway, gathering speed as it barreled toward takeoff. I craned my neck to see better through the window, holding my breath as I gripped the armrest of my seat and grinned like a fool. I sensed the man seated next to me was rolling his eyes, but I didn't care. Of course I'd flown before — a regional flight from LaGuardia to Albany on Mohawk Airlines, and a couple of quick hops in a single-engine Cessna with a man who was trying to impress me with his derring-do. Alas, his derring-didn't. But this was my first-ever flight on a jet plane.
Just forty-eight hours earlier, I'd had no travel plans at all, let alone a transcontinental trip to Los Angeles aboard a TWA 707 Jetliner. Late Saturday night, I'd been sitting as usual at the counter at Fiorello's Home of the Hot Fudge, swiveling back and forth on the stool, as I chatted with Fadge Fiorello, my dearest friend in the world. The evening crush of teenagers had subsided, and things were quiet. Fadge was staring at the floor. I could almost hear the pitched battle raging in his head: to sweep or not to sweep? I usually could tell what he was thinking, at least when work, food, or sex was on his mind. Work, put it off. Food, shovel it in. And sex, if only. Once he'd decided the floor could wait another day to be swept, he asked where I'd like to go for our late-night pizza, Tedesco's or Scafitti's? I said it didn't matter as long as there was something strong to wash it down. Then the front door jingled, and my editor, Charlie Reese, stepped inside.
"Hiya, pops," I said.
Charlie removed his hat and gloves. Then, pulling off his overcoat, he frowned at me. He didn't like me calling him "pops." Made him feel old. He motioned to an empty booth in the back. I slid off the stool and led the way.
"How soon can you be ready to leave for Los Angeles?" he asked without preamble once we were seated across from each other.
I cocked my head. "Are you inviting me or sending me?" That surely made him feel young. He smiled.
"When do you need me to go?"
I sat up straight in my seat. "Tomorrow? Wait a minute. Is this the Tony Eberle story? I thought Georgie Porgie was all set to leave tomorrow. What happened?"
Charlie drew a deep breath and looked away. He rubbed his arthritic left pinky finger as he sometimes did when searching for the right words. And other times when it was paining him.
"George can't go."
"Why not? This is his big chance to go to Hollywood and get discovered at Schwab's."
Though he didn't approve, Charlie knew I enjoyed a good chuckle at my colleague George Walsh's expense whenever the opportunity presented itself, which was often. If Charlie's discomfort was any indication, the reason for George's change in plans was a doozy.
Georgie Porgie fancied himself the top reporter at the New Holland Republic, on an equal footing with the likes of Edward R. Murrow. But in reality, he was ill-suited to working at a newspaper. Folding one into a tricorne hat, perhaps, but not writing for one. He thought Eisenhower's warning about the rise of the military-industrial complex referred to an army factory that was being built outside Washington, DC. But since his father-in-law, Artie Short, was the publisher, George Walsh always landed the best assignments, all the jobs that were deemed too important for a "girl reporter." Artie Short hated me anyway and would probably have preferred it if I walked into a propeller. For my part, I made a habit of beating his son-in-law to the punch on the biggest stories, including a couple of recent high-profile murders in town. But the Tony Eberle story was the juiciest assignment to come down the pike in a long time: a chance to travel all expenses paid to California to interview the young New Holland native on the set of his first Hollywood movie.
"What happened?" I repeated. "Why can't Georgie Porgie go?"
Charlie frowned and warned me not to laugh, which only succeeded in eliciting a ticklish smile on my lips. He warned me again, and I tamped down the urge.
"His wife had a dream," he said finally. "A dream that the plane crashed. She's a superstitious sort. Believes in that kind of thing. She told George he couldn't go."
"What did Artie say?" I asked, now grinning ear to ear. "Surely he doesn't believe such nonsense."
Charlie shrugged. "He told me his daughter has always had an uncanny knack for premonitions."
"So Artie doesn't care if the plane goes down with me aboard?" I asked, summoning some indignation despite the absurdity of his daughter's dream.
Charlie dismissed my concerns, assuring me that nothing bad was going to happen to the plane. As the editor in chief, he didn't often write news stories anymore, except for those he enjoyed, specifically scientific pieces. And so, sitting in a booth in the back of Fiorello's on a frigid Saturday night, he treated me to a catalogue of statistics on the safety of modern air travel. I wasn't listening. I was already planning my wardrobe for the trip.
"You'll take the train down to New York tomorrow, then fly from Idlewild Monday. We've booked you a hotel in Hollywood. Artie says it's a nice place. He stayed there a couple of nights during the war before he shipped out to the Pacific."
"I thought the Battle of the Bulge was in Europe."
Charlie stared me down. He didn't need to say anything. Artie Short had seen action in the navy in the Pacific, and I shouldn't have mocked his service. Still, he was carrying a spare tire around his waist, which had inspired my little joke.
"Why doesn't Artie just send George by train?" I asked, steering my derision back to the nebbish. "It'll take a couple of days longer, but that'll give him time to memorize the alphabet."
Charlie ignored my crack. "No time for a train. Artie's worried that the Gazette is going to send someone out to Los Angeles to scoop us on this. They've been eating into our circulation for the past year and a half. Artie's become obsessed with them."
"Who are they going to send, Harvey Dunnolt?" I asked. "He doesn't even get out of his car to cover city council meetings. Barely rolls down the window as he drives by."
"Look, Ellie. Do you want this assignment or not?"
I smiled sweetly at my boss. "Sure, pops. I'll bail you out on this one."
Against all odds and George Walsh's wife's dream of a fiery plane crash, TWA Flight 7 arrived without incident at Los Angeles Airport at 2:50 p.m. on Monday, February 5. In fact, it was an incredibly pleasant experience, with fine food, plenty of drink, and smooth sailing. As I disembarked, the friendly captain smiled at me again.
"Welcome home, miss," he said, his gaze darting from my eyes to linger on my bust before he remembered himself and his good manners.
"I'm not from Los Angeles."
He arched a brow and cocked his head just so as if to flirt. "Perhaps I could show you around town," he said. "Where are you staying?"
It took no small measure of self-control, but I managed to keep the name of my hotel to myself. I thanked him for a fine flight and stepped through the door and down the airstairs.
On the ground, I was greeted by a cool, gray day. About sixty degrees. It was still an improvement over the cold New York winter I'd left behind. I retrieved my luggage and made my way to the taxi stand. My driver, a chatty fellow who kept pulling off his cap to scratch his balding head, called me "sweetie" for the forty minutes it took to reach Hollywood. As we motored up La Brea Avenue, he pointed out various landmarks and places of interest, including the Perry Mason Studio near Sunset Boulevard. I nearly squealed with delight and asked him if he'd ever seen William Hopper around town. I'd had a big crush on "Paul Drake" for years. Something about that shock of white hair and the checked jackets he wore.
"Never seen him," said the driver. "But I dropped Raymond Burr at Musso and Frank once about a year ago." He performed a feathery hand gesture as he pronounced the name, presumably an indication of the actor's predilections. Was he suggesting that Perry Mason was queer? I said nothing for fear of coming off as a rube unfamiliar with what seemed to be common knowledge.
We drove to my hotel on McCadden Place, just north of Hollywood Boulevard. Before the brakes had even stopped squeaking, I asked the cabbie if he hadn't perhaps made a mistake. Peering out the window, I saw a dingy brick building with a torn awning and a faded sign announcing the McCadden Hotel. Two shady-looking men were pitching pennies against the stoop. One of them was the bellhop.
"I'm afraid this is it, sweetie," said the driver.
"But my boss assured me this was a nice hotel. He stayed here during the war."
I paid the fare and climbed out of the cab. The driver fetched my bag from the trunk and wished me luck. Upon seeing me, the bellhop reluctantly tore himself away from his game, but not before his opponent had gathered up his winnings. The bellhop frowned, undoubtedly mourning the loss of his penny. Then, putting on a brave face, he straightened the little drummer-boy cap on his head, welcomed me to the McCadden, and grabbed my suitcase. I followed him up the stairs and into the dark lobby.
The McCadden had been built when heavy velvet curtains, oriental rugs, and flocked wallpaper were all the rage. Probably before 1920. And no one had thought to remodel since. Or clean. The odor of cigar ashes gave the place much of its dry-cough charm, and you could scarcely ignore the vague smell of sulfur lurking underneath. I figured the dusty old gentleman manning the reception desk had recently polished off a luncheon of hard-boiled eggs.
"Your room's been paid up for the week," he said, straining to read from a note he'd retrieved from a cubbyhole behind the desk.
He handed the key to the bellhop, who by now must have considered himself my friend because he introduced himself as Marty. He lugged my bag up the stairs to a room on the second floor. Once inside, he gave me the grand tour, pointing out the bed, a Philco radio on the scratched desk, and the radiator valve against the wall. Finally, he threw open the curtains to present the view: a brick wall painted over with faded letters spelling out "Selma Hardware."
I considered my new friend, Marty, in the quiet of my room. He looked to be in his late twenties, tall and lanky, and in need of a shave. His uniform was a sea of wrinkles, except where the fabric showed shiny patches, the result of too many scalding ironings. The sleeves of his jacket fell three inches short of the finish line of his bony wrists. I could see now that his hat had lost most of its shape, as a sweaty pillow might during a particularly hot spell, and I figured he'd probably slept or sat on it one too many times. Marty told me it was going to rain.
"I heard it was always sunny in California," I said, feeling cheated on my first trip to Los Angeles.
"When it rains it pours. And the weatherman is calling for 'pours' day after tomorrow and all week after that. I'll leave a newspaper for you in the mornings so you can check the forecast."
Looking around the grim room, I wondered where I might find better accommodations. I tipped Marty a quarter. That ought to keep him in pennies for a while.
* * *
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 1962
I managed to sleep through the night none the worse for wear, with no bites from bedbugs. And the door to my room had dispatched its duties, keeping any and all marauders, junkies, and thieves on the other side. At 6:00 a.m. I was wide awake, thanks to the time difference and my excitement at the prospect of meeting Tony Eberle on the set of his movie. The bathtub proved to be a pleasant surprise, dispensing plenty of hot water and good pressure. By seven, I was ready for the day.
Having skipped dinner the night before, I felt hollow and needed something to eat. The McCadden provided no food service, but the same dusty desk clerk from the previous day steered me to Hody's Coffee Shop a couple of blocks away on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. I almost gave it a miss when I saw the giant creepy clown on the sign atop the roof. I swear the eyes were following me. But my appetite won out. Inside, a friendly waitress poured me a cup of piping hot coffee before I'd had the chance to ask, and the vulcanized eggs were edible if rubbery. The English muffin was perfectly charred, and the butter soft. I studied my notes as I picked over the remains of my breakfast.
Tony Eberle had grown up on Clizbe Avenue in the Rockton district of New Holland. His mother, Louise, a Hagaman girl, kept house for her family, which included a daughter three years older than Tony. Joe Eberle, Tony's father, had delivered milk and eggs for Stadler's Dairy for more than twenty years.
From what I could gather, Tony was the most talented actor to come out of New Holland in recent memory. He'd starred in every drama club musical production during his years at New Holland's Walter T. Finch High School. From Forty-Second Street to Show Boat to Kiss Me Kate, Tony Eberle had set the standard for local theater. According to the newspaper clippings my assistant, Norma Geary, had prepared for me, he could sing and dance as well as act. One review, written by none other than George Walsh in 1956, predicted great things for the high schooler after his stunning success as Curly in Oklahoma!
"A modern-day Thespis, a Barrymore on the Mohawk, young Eberle steals the show, his voice ringing through the hall like the clarion call of a distant trumpet on a heroic battlefield. His gay dancing delights old and young as he glides light-footed, even in cowboy boots, across the stage."
That — believe it — was from George's notice. And, yes, that was how he wrote his stories: odd turns of phrase weighed down by healthy doses of hyperbole, which he slathered atop his inadvertent double entendres as if with a trowel. His mangled metaphors lay bleeding on the page, begging to be put out of their misery. His sports stories were even worse, but that's a topic for another day. In a codicil to his review, George declared the show a success, but he lamented the bad grammar and low moral values of some of the characters, Ado Annie and Aunt Eller in particular.
Norma had also managed to secure a copy of Tony's high school yearbook for my research, and I retrieved it from my bag. His portrait showed a tall, well-built young man with straight teeth and handsome features. But, ultimately, he lacked any of the charm I'd expected. I chalked that up to the photographer, not the good-looking Tony Eberle. Studying the portrait, I sensed that somewhere in his deep dark eyes lurked fear and loneliness, perhaps even self-doubt. His only activities involved the drama club and the marching band, where he'd served for three years as the drum major. I was sure he'd taken some lumps for that from the other boys in school.
As far as I could tell, Tony hadn't gone to college. Probably a luxury his family couldn't afford on a milkman's salary. I wished I'd had the opportunity to interview his parents and sister for the story before leaving for Hollywood, but, of course, the assignment had come as a last-minute surprise. I resolved to follow up with the family upon my return to New Holland.
I read on. Tony had spent a couple of years in Massachusetts and Vermont doing summer stock. O'Neill, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Strindberg, and Shakespeare. And now he was about to make the leap from the boards to the world of Hollywood stardom as the beach bum best friend of a teenaged Casanova on a surfboard — to wit, the ageless Bobby Renfro, who had to be thirty-five years old if he was a day.
Excerpted from Cast the First Stone by james w. ziskin. Copyright © 2017 James W. Ziskin. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
From the publisher: February 1962. Tony Eberle has just scored his first role in a Hollywood movie, and the publisher of his hometown newspaper in upstate New York wants a profile of the local boy who’s made good. Reporter Ellie Stone is dispatched to Los Angeles for the story. But when she arrives on set to meet her subject, Tony has vanished. The director is apoplectic, his agent is stumped, and the producer is dead. Ellie is on the story, diving headfirst into a treacherous demimonde of Hollywood wannabes, beautiful young men, desperately ambitious ingénues, panderers, and pornography hobbyists. Then there are some real movie stores with reputations to protect. To find the killer, Ellie must separate the lies from the truth, unearthing secrets no one wants revealed along the way. But before she can solve producer Bertram Wallis’ murder, she must locate Tony Eberle. This is the fifth in the Ellie Stone Mystery series, and a welcome addition it is. The tale takes place in just over two weeks’ time, in February of 1962. Eleonora (Ellie) is a reporter with the New Holland Republic, a small afternoon daily newspaper serving its small-town community in upstate New York, and Ellie gets the plum assignment; but as the cliché goes, be careful what you wish for. It takes her a while to adjust to the fact that other newspapermen [nearly always men] just “look past a girl reporter. Even when they’re leering at her.” There are numerous instances of political correctness, attributable more than anything to the time in which they occur, indicative of and true to the era depicted. (On a more positive note, I must admit that I loved the Yiddishisms thrown in by the author via the mouth of Irving Greenberg, Tony’s Jewish agent, originally from Brooklyn [being from that borough myself.]) But the writing, and the plot, are very well-done, and the supporting characters just terrific. Ellie of course is a known quantity – always great to read a new Ellie Stone book. It is very enjoyable, and it is recommended.
Ellie Stone, a newspaper journalist from the unknown town of New Holland, gets the chance to travel to Hollywood, California to interview Tony Eberle, formerly also of New Holland, who is about to star in his first movie. Anyone who has met Tony admits he is definite “eye candy” who, if he has the goods on acting, is about to become a big Hollywood star. The problem is – he never showed up the first day of rehearsals. The fury of both actors and staff is chaotic and Ellie Stone wonders if she’s got a bigger story here than she first thought. Ellie is definitely a tireless reporter as she sets about finding the MIA actor, only to find that his producer is also missing and a few days later is found dead. No spoilers here! The remainder of the novel focuses on the people who knew Tony and his producer. At first they’re not willing to help Ellie one iota until she lies and says she knows where he is. Then they’re all over her to cooperate and Ellie plays this little lie for all it’s worth. The bottom line is that Hollywood is full of panderers in the 1960s, willing to do anything for a “moment in the sun” of stardom, be it top actor or extra. There are rare people in this novel who do have good intentions and act with integrity, but they are the exception and not the norm. The characters of the norm are too busy having a good, no – great time drinking, drugging and having sex with adults and – Oh No! Ellie makes a clever sleuth and she’s got a wacky, always entertaining sense of humor that at times saves this story from its repetitive cycles of discovery, where Ellie often as to repeat former trips and conversations to get ahead one step at a time. As an aside, film buffs will love the references and recommendations of actors, actresses, and films from the 1950s and 1960s. The outcome is not what you expect but does differ from the normal Hollywood story ending! Nicely crafted mystery, James W. Ziskin!